The Christmas decorations are still up at the yellow-and-brown houseon Chalice Road near Fort Meade. Inside, the place settings for a full-course meal remain on the dining room table -- exactly where Army Sgt. Marsha Robinson, 32, left them before heading for Saudi Arabia.
Her husband, William Robinson, and three sons spend most of their time in the family room downstairs, leaving hints of her orderly lifestyle intact as a reminder of the feminine presence missing from the tidy, two-story home.
"It's a bummer for us because we were really close," said Robinson, 55, a retired first sergeant who served his entire career in the military police. "We would spend every minute together. It's a real strain because it's like my friend is gone."
He shows off a picture of the two of them smiling together, but stiffens when looking at herpicture in full military garb. He stares, as if trying to bring the picture to life, then hurriedly puts it down.
"I get kind of sad when I look at this one," he said, holding his emotions in check. "It impacts what this whole thing is about."
The family is doing theirbest to be strong. Posted instructions in the laundry room offer step-by-step instructions for one area Robinson has yet to master. Untilthe war began last week, letters, packages and even a videotaped message arrived at the house from Saudi Arabia.
"She sent the video telling us to be good in school and reminded us of different things that happened with us," 9-year-old Dwayne said. "She reminded me about the time I had to go to work with her after school for a while and played video games, and (how) when I started catching the school bus again, she said she missed me.
"I feel really sad, sorry and worriedabout her. If I could give her a message right now, I would tell herI love her."
Dwayne has taken his mother's mission harder than his 6-year-old twin brothers, Dominick and Dennis. It's more difficult for the precocious youngsters to grasp exactly what their mother is involved in.
The outspoken Dominick looked at his mother's militarypicture and points in a wild circle.
"My mom's way over there," he said with a smile, showing front teeth waiting to come in. The twins giggled about her video and laughed over her comments about Dennis having to be taken to the hospital for minor injuries after falling down an escalator.
"No, that was you," Dominick said, laughing and pointing to his brother -- to make sure it was clear which identical twin took the fall. He races from the room and returns with two drawings, a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle for his mother and another for hisfather.
"We send her packages of her favorite foods," Dwayne said, happy to talk about his mom, but with eyes beginning to tear. "She likes crabs and seafood, so we sent that. And these two (pointing to his brothers) sent drawings."
The boys keep him busy, but Robinsonsaid he's holding his own.
Even though they both have had extensive military training, the retired sergeant said no one can really be prepared for war. His wife's responsibilities involve transporting items from the United States to troops, but he said he fears for her safety almost as much as for combat soldiers.
A Vietnam veteran, Robinson looks off in the distance as he talks about the harsh world of war, where he said no rules apply.
"I told her to be careful and to watch it," Robinson said. "I think about terrorist threats. There is no way to tell the good guys from the bad. There are a lot of crazies running around out there.
"It hurts to know what war is actually like. If I could, I would change places with her. Her perspective is to save the world, and that everyone has some good in them. I'm worried that she and a lot of others do not have the mentality for combat and war."
The couple met and married at Fort Meade, one year before Robinson retired in 1981. Since then, he has been working as acting director at the Dismas House East Correctional facility for men inBaltimore.
But Marsha Robinson continued her Army career with a three-year stint in Germany. Just as she was to return home, orders were issued for her to report to the Middle East.
"Germany was different; I would be able to see her every three months," he said. "We gave the airlines a lot of money for a few years. We spent about $5,000in airfare and had telephone bills of about $300 a month.
"There,if you elect to see someone, you can. Can't exactly go to to see herin Saudi. It's starting to be the longest period we've ever been separated."
Despite a mutual agreement to continue her military career, he admits that the outbreak of war has caused him to reconsider. She plans to re-enlist for another six years to qualify for retirementbenefits.
"Every day, I think about the idea that she should get out," he said. "She's trying to do both. But now she's doing back-to-back tours and its starting to bring her down. She's been in Saudi since the beginning.
"But I can't tell her what to do. Some people tell me that they would not have their wife doing this. But everyone has to make their own decision. I wouldn't want her to get out and regret her decision later."
Asked if their father was doing a good job being both mom and dad, Dwayne quickly said "yes" while the twins playfully yelled "no."
Sitting on his father's lap, Dominick complained that "he won't let us eat whatever we want." Added Dennis, "he promised us eggs for breakfast."
But outside of the occasional complaint about a rigid 9 p.m. bedtime, the boys seem to have little desire to gripe, repeatedly calling on dad to unstick pants zippers, playvideo games or sometimes just for a hug.
"Even though she's not here, there's so much that she has instilled in them," Robinson said. "They know her rules, that they have to bathe before going to bed andto brush their teeth. There's a regimen that she set up."
"We're managing OK, I haven't messed anything up. But when I see her, the first thing I want to do is hold her and tell her everything is all right."